Mega farms, neighbors square off at public forum

Farmers who have established industrial-scale crop growing operations clashed Wednesday with their neighbors during a sometimes heated meeting about groundwater regulations that could affect mega-farms in a seven-county area of central South Carolina.

Representatives of the Walther and Woody farm companies were skeptical of a state plan to oversee the amount of water they take from the ground – and they used the meeting as a forum to say they’re being unfairly criticized for growing potatoes and corn.

“We should be a pillar of the community,’’ Anthony Walther told an overflow crowd that packed into a small government meeting room in Aiken. “We’re religious people that work together, we keep our families together, and just because there’s a large farm out there, people are scared of it.’’

Walther, whose family operates extensive potato farms in Aiken and Barnwell counties, took aim at critics concerned about the amount of water his farms use. The Walther and Woody operations have withdrawn about 2 billion gallons of groundwater in the past two years, an amount larger than some small community water systems.

“We have done everything to do the best we can on water conservation, so a lot of what you hear out there are lies,’’ he said.

Mega-farms are a sore spot for many people in eastern Aiken and Barnwell counties, where out-of-state agribusinesses have acquired some 10,000 acres since 2013 and launched row crop farms bigger than many people are accustomed to seeing, The State newspaper reported in April.

The Walther and Woody farm companies, originally from Michigan, Texas and New Mexico, have drawn fire for siphoning billions of gallons from both groundwater and rivers, clearing thousands of acres of forests, and spraying farm fields with chemicals from crop-dusting planes.

Their neighbors, a collection of long-time residents and out-of-state retirees, say the crop farms’ arrival near the town of Windsor has disrupted the small community. Some neighbors have taken the companies to court over plans to close public roads that run through the big farms.

Gerald Rowe, a critic of the big farms, raised concerns about industrial-style agricultural operations. He said Aiken County’s established $100 million horse-farming industry is important to protect. The area near where the large crop farms are located is surrounded by small horse farms that have attracted retirees from around the country.

His remarks prompted an angry response from a Woody representative. He accused the horse farming industry of spendin/g money out of state – instead of in Aiken County, as he said his farms do.

“Everybody complains that we don’t spend a dime here, all of our money goes somewhere else. No. It’s all spent’’ locally,’’said the Woody employee, who declined to give his name but was identified by a company executive as a company worker.

Brandon and Colt Woody, who have said little publicly about their companies’ arrival in South Carolina from Texas, did not speak at the meeting and declined comment afterward.

The Walther company, headquartered in Michigan, recruited the Woody agribusiness group to South Carolina as a partner. The Walthers grow potatoes and the Woodys specialize in corn.

Tensions between mega-farms and neighbors have simmered since the Walthers first arrived in late 2013, but Aiken County Councilwoman Kathy Rawls said that needs to change.

“There is no reason we have to demonize each other,” she said. “No one is better than anyone else. We all contribute to the way of life here, and I think we have a good quality of life. We are going to have to get along, whether you like it or not.’’

The purpose of Wednesday’s meeting was to discuss a state plan to — for the first time — oversee groundwater withdrawals in a seven-county area, including Aiken, Lexington and Orangeburg.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has proposed requiring anyone wanting to take large amounts of groundwater to receive state permits, as is already done along South Carolina’s coast. The agency plans a series of meetings, including one in Lexington, to gain public input before asking the department’s board to designate the seven counties as an area requiring regulation. The agency plans to take the matter to the board in October.

Farmers and advocacy groups, such as the influential S.C. Farm Bureau, have not taken a formal position on DHEC’s plan, but Anthony Walther and state Rep. Mac Toole, R-Lexington, questioned whether groundwater regulations would be too costly.

All told, more than 50 people attended the meeting at DHEC’s Aiken office. Among those were representatives of the Farm Bureau, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and Aiken County water districts, as well as farmers and their neighbors.

DHEC officials and groundwater regulation boosters said rules would not hinder economc growth or hurt farms, but would give the state a way to make sure water supplies were not drawn down too far.

Agency officials said at the meeting groundwater levels had dropped anywhere from 8 to 15 feet in the seven-county region over the long term, and levels could drop even more in the future.

“We have taken water resources for granted,’’ said Myra Reece, the agency’s environment director.

If approved, the groundwater rules would require anyone wanting to draw large amounts of groundwater — about three million gallons per month — to obtain permits from the agency. Big farms, industries and public water suppliers would be affected.

A permit application would trigger a public notice period and require farms to show the need for the withdrawal. Now, groundwater is unregulated, and some people worry that irrigation for large farms could deplete water needed for drinking and other uses.

Public water systems and industries have contributed to the groundwater drop, but the arrival of the Woody and Walther operations helped focus attention on the long-term trend.

During its first year of operation in 2016, one of the Woodys’ corn farms pumped about 700 million gallons of groundwater to irrigate crops, which scientists say contributed to a 22-foot drop in groundwater levels in the area. Some neighbors near the farm complained that their wells had sputtered and, in at least one instance, gone dry, although the cause of their problems has not been pinpointed.

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey say groundwater levels recovered over the winter near the big farm as irrigation ramped down. But levels began to drop again this spring when irrigation pipes started flowing again, according to the Geological Survey.